Sunday, 29 July 2012

A valuable edition to the library, with caveats



Book Review: The Peninsular War - Wellington's Battlefields Revisited by Ian Fletcher
(Images courtesy of the publishers. Please do not reproduce without first seeking permission)
In a break from my 1812, Russian Campaign reading theme for this year, I read this book by Ian Fletcher in which he presents photographs of some of the battlefields of the Peninsular War. I have not seen Fletcher’s original book on the subject “Fields of Fire”. This book is a ‘revisiting’, some eight years later, enabling him to present a photographic record of the battlefields of the Peninsular War and to show how some features have changed or nearly disappeared.
While not the intention, this is a book in two parts; ‘The Peninsular War’ and ‘Wellington’s Battlefields Revisited’. The former is covered by the text, while the latter is provided by the pictures. Sadly, there is a disconnect between the two. As the inside sleeve summary of the book states “this book is not intended to be any groundbreaking account of the Peninsular War but simply shows Wellington’s battlefields in full colour...”. It is a shame that the author did not leave it at that.


The photographs in this book are a visual feast. There are 123 photographs, all beautifully reproduced in full colour, featuring key aspects of the Peninsular War battlefields at which British forces participated, from Roliça to Toulouse. The photographs range from views across a battlefield, to key features of a section of a battlefield, to buildings and bridges (often now in ruins), to commemorative plaques and grave sites. One picture, described as “Three planes from the Spanish Air Force fly over the battlefield memorial on the Greater Arapil at Salamanca”, is a particularly impressive, poignant shot. All of the photos are clear and have been taken at the same time of year as the original battle, so that we have, for example, snow-covered terrain in the photos from the Coruña campaign. 


The photographs range in size from less than a ninth of a page (for a two pages of photos of gravestones at Toulouse) to full page views of a battlefield, such as those of Salamanca. The majority of the photos are about a third of a page or larger. The full-page images allow the reader to look over them in detail, identifying key aspects of the terrain. The photographs are a great resource for wargamers to use when designing table-top terrain, but are also of great interest to any ‘student’ of the period. They are especially of benefit to those of us who, at around 15 000 km from Spain and Portugal, are unable to easily ‘flit’ over to the Iberian Peninsula to look over the landscape!


Full-page photos such as this one of the battlefield of Salamanca (“...looking north-east towards the Greater Arapil...”) allow for detailed inspection of features.
While the photographs are marvellous, the text is of less value. It begins with a four-page biography of Wellington and then provides a brief summary of the Peninsular War, from a British perspective. As stated in the inside sleeve, Ian Fletcher’s description of the war is not a “groundbreaking account”, but rather the standard, accepted Anglo-version, drawing principally on sources such as Oman. The writing improves, becoming more objective and describing events in greater detail as the book goes on, but there is not scope for it to be anything more than a ‘potted history’. While the photos show locations mentioned in the text, the potential for complementarity is not exploited to the full. I would have much preferred a brief history of the campaign—for those new to the period—with the majority of the text describing each battlefield in some detail and, of course, some accompanying maps.


I am going to sound like a broken record to regular readers of my reviews, but... where are the maps?! An overall map of the Peninsula, with more detailed maps of some of the key stages of the war and further maps of each of the battlefields featured in the photographs, indicating where each photograph was taken, would have been ideal. So, if you are reading Mr Fletcher, that is my wish-list for the third edition!


The book itself has all the fine publication qualities that we, spoilt as we are, have come to expect as ‘standard’. The hard-back binding, high quality, gloss paper, beautifully reproduced pictures and pleasing font (presented as clear white type on a black background in this case) all lend to a lovely book to hold and to read.


Leaving aside the text, this is a fine picture book and one that I know that we will use frequently—commencing with our game of Salamanca later this year—to provide tips regarding terrain. A valuable edition to the library; with some caveats.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Great text, shame about the maps



Book Review 1812: Russia's Patriotic War, by Laurence Spring

This book combines quotes from various participants in the 1812 campaign, both civil and military, to provide a ‘Russian’ perspective of the campaign. The sources are principally Russian, but also include Poles, French, British and American.

The author’s text is skilfully interspersed with quotes to produce a smooth flow and an engaging read. The quotes are not the usual one or two liners either, but several lines and often even several paragraphs long; thus painting a word picture of what people actually experienced, thought and observed. This combination of the author’s text and quotes works well and, in the case of the chapter about Borodino, produces an account that is vivid and harrowing. One can almost smell the powder and feel the intensity of that dramatic, terrible struggle.

“The maps, why is it always the maps?” (apologies to Rod Steiger and H.A.L. Craig for the mis-quote).

While the text is excellent, the same cannot be said of the maps. Why is it that authors/publishers produce such great books with such poor-quality maps? This is one of the worst examples that I have seen recently. There are a total of five maps—plan of the battle of Smolensk, plan of the battle of Lubino, plan of the battle of Borodino, plan of the battle of Krasnoe, plan of the battle of Berezina—all reproductions, presumably from the British Library collection “Plans etc of the French campaign in Russia”. None of the maps are referred to directly in the text and the source of them is not cited anywhere in the book (that I could find at least). The maps themselves are almost works of art, but each of them is far too small (about 120 mm x 90 mm) to make out the details; besides which no key is provided! This is most disappointing and detracts greatly from the fine text.

The appendices (Russian Army—June 1812, Opolychenye Forces at Borodino, French Losses (a table listing them day by day) and Russian Army—December 1812) are an interesting and useful addition to the body of the book. The bibliography provides evidence of a range of sources consulted and leads for the serious student to follow-up.

The publication quality, as with most books nowadays, is excellent. My copy of the book is hardcover on relatively thick stock. The print is an easily legible, rounded font that is pleasing to the eye. The central plates—paintings of officers, battle scenes, cartoons and famous incidents—are all reproduced clearly in black white.

The combination of clear text, many extensive quotes and the clear plates make for a fine book; it’s just a shame about the maps.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Same great presentation, with limitations and a few surprises


Book Review: Borodino-The Moskva: The Battle for the Redoubts by François-Guy Hourtoulle and André Jouineau
I’ll begin with a confession; to me the books of this series are the best value for money, most useful and beautifully produced uniform books on the market. I much prefer them to the Osprey titles, which, to me, are so often a disappointment. It begins with the look, feel and handle of the books, the hardcover format, the quality of the glossy paper stock and continues, as one turns each page, with the all important content. They are not perfect, and I will point out the limitations from my perspective, but you know the temper of the review you are about to read!
The books of this series from Histoire et Collections are predominantly uniform books. The uniforms are presented in detail, with nearly every unit from every division in both armies shown, in colour, and in an array of uniforms from full dress to greatcoats. This means that you get, for example, not one but ten representations of Russian cuirassiers from various guard and line regiments. Examples from the ranks, officers, trumpeters, fifers and drummers are represented for many of the units and/or troop-types, along with the flags or guidon’s for many of them. The standard representation, and limitation no. 1, is profile for cavalry units and front-on for the infantry. There are exceptions to provide guidance on other details of the uniforms, but this is not true for all types. This leads us to limitation no. 2, and the more important one. As with all of the books of the series, there is little description of the uniforms beyond a simple one-line caption. This means that, while they are beautiful books and a great resource, they are not capable of answering your questions about some of the finer details of uniforms. I tend to use them in conjunction with other books and internet resources, such as the wonderful Histofig website.
As it’s predominantly a book of uniforms, limitation no. 3 is that you’ll not get a detailed description and analysis of the battle. That said, the text is interesting, if a little quirky. Hourtoulle (through Alan McKay’s translation) describes the background to the 1812 campaign, the lead-up to Borodino, gives a reasonably detailed description of the Battle of Shervardino and of course of the epic battle itself. This latter includes specific exploits and events which are described in some detail; and not just all the ‘famous’ ones. Finally, there is an assessment of losses, of the outcome of the battle and its place in the campaign.
The orders of battle (OBs) are well above average and more than one has come to expect in a ‘uniform book’. This is particularly the case for the French-allied army, which is superbly detailed. Hourtoulle used the Vincennes archives to produce OBs that list, for Napoleon’s household and every corps, division, brigade and unit of the Grande Armée present at Borodino, the names of generals, staff officers and unit commanders, with a one-line to one-paragraph brief history for each person. In addition, to the information about the commanders for all of the units in every brigade, there are estimates of the number of men present at the battle and/or key stages of the campaign. While still useful, less information is provided for the Russian army. Hourtoulle used the history of the campaign by the Russian historian Buturlin, published in 1824. Kutuzov’s staff along with that of each of the two Western Armies are listed, along with corps and divisional commanders. The units in every division are listed, with an indication of the number of battalions of infantry, squadrons of cavalry or companies of artillery.
A section of Robaud's magnificent panorama (Saxon v Russian cuirassiers near the grand redoubt) that is reproduced in the book (Source: Wiki Commons)
Once again, as with all of the books in the series, all of the above is accompanied by luscious illustrations and reproductions of paintings, maps and other pictures—the majority in full colour. A feature of this volume for me are the detailed diagrams of the grand redoubt in aerial and side-on view, including a representation of the fox-holes and the layout of the Russian grand battery within. These are supported by large-scale reproductions of sections of the wonderful Borodino panorama by Roubaud and of paintings by other artists depicting scenes from the battle.
Limitations aside, these books are hard to beat as a single volume that provides so much. When combined with other books from a personal or public library and the vast content available on the internet for free, you have all that you require to research the battle, paint the figures, organise the troops, design a wargames scenario and stage a great, historically-based game for part of the Battle of Borodino, or perhaps even the battle in its entirety.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Wargaming Borodino 2012 (5)


Terrain Completed
Our terrain for Borodino is now complete, save for adding the redoubt at Shevardino and the Borodino church. We are attempting to scratch-build the latter. Our version currently comprises the two ‘storeys’ complete with roughly shaped rooves, the bases of the domes and the sides of the stairs—it currently resembles a paddle-steamer! I am confident that some further touches, a bit of moulding with putty and some paint will transform it.
Photo of the Borodino church taken by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky in 1911
Above and below: two views of our completed Borodino battlefield—these photos also look like they were taken in 1911 as I did not have my camera that night, so used the one on the iPad. Utitsa is in the foreground, looking towards the line of the flêches, redoubt and Borodino (sans church). Note panel from the Borodino Panorama in the background.
At our next ANF ‘gathering’ we will complete our scratch-built Borodino church and will begin to place the troops on the table. For now the battlefield, as it likely was in July 1812, is a peaceful and serene place, with people going about their business while the campaign rages hundreds of kilometres to the west. That is all set to change and, by 3rd September 2012, it will again mimic the historical version:
“all nearby heights... glittering with the steel of our bayonets and the copper of our guns. The air... filled with the voices of hordes of men and the neighs of horses” (Avraam Norov, a lieutenant of artillery in the Second Western Army, 3rd September 1812; cited in Mikaberidze 2010)
A Russian battery tries out the flêches for size. We have represented them as a straight line of fortifications for simplicity, so that they will accommodate a battery or unit of infantry at our scale (approx. 1 figure to 50 men, 1 gun model to 20 guns).
View of the grand redoubt from Shevardino.
Borodino village and bridge looking towards Gorki. The village will be represented by this building and the church.
As we all know, wargames are won off the table. A fun part of all this preparation time is that it has allowed for heaps of “psychological warfare”. The battle has been ‘fought’, ‘won’ and ‘lost’ several times already, whilst we have been developing the scenario and building our terrain. All done in jest and in the best spirit, of course!

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Comments sought from our e-friends

I am seeking comment and advice from our wargaming and blogging e-friends, especially those with a strong interest in the Napoleonic Wars.

Have any of you read (or own a copy) of Brent Nosworthy's "Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies"? What is your assessment of the book? It is the case that it became the 'new standard' in the mid-nineties, but has now been surpassed (in English) by tomes such as Nafziger's "Imperial Bayonets", or do they complement one another?

I am thinking of purchasing a copy and have done my usual quick research (i.e. checked for reviews on Amazon and The Napoleon Series). Most of the reviews there are pretty glowing. They suggest that it is detailed and very much for the devotee of the period and/or wargamer. That sounds like me/us to a tee! It is readily available and reasonably priced. However, I don't want to get a copy if it won't add much beyond our easily accessible sources (personal library, internet or public library) for uses like scenario development, discussion about rules and general knowledge and understanding.

Your thoughts and comments would be appreciated.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

An invaluable source and a good read


Book Review: The Battle of Borodino: Napoleon versus Kutuzov, by Alexander Mikaberidze
(Images courtesy of the publishers. Please do not reproduce without first seeking permission)
This book has everything that you’d expect from the best of the ‘Campaign Chronicle’ series and one written by a man who is one of the leading ‘young bloods’ of Napoleonic history, Alexander Mikaberidze.
Mikaberidze’s lucid writing style enables the reader to easily follow the key events and to understand causes and effects. For example, in the 'Background', which covers causes of the war and the opening manoeuvres, he clearly describes what are often a confusing series of marches, retreats, separate armies and wings and failed enveloping manoeuvres.
The bulk of the book is the ‘Campaign Chronicle’ which details the campaign in small, detailed sections, beginning with the unification of the Russian armies in early August and the manoeuvring to the battlefield of Borodino. Particularly pleasing, and somewhat of a bonus, are the 19 pages dedicated to a description of the Battle of Shervardino that preceded Borodino and gave a clear indication of the struggle that was to come two days later. This is followed by a detailed section on the armies and leaders, which includes a listing of various estimates, from a range of sources and authors, of the numbers present in the two armies, plus tables and graphs of the ages and years of experience of the officer corps of the two adversaries.
The next section ‘Eve of the Bloodbath’ describes the battlefield, the plans of the commanders and distributions of the armies. It also includes detailed descriptions of the fortifications that were built by the Russians, complete with accompanying diagrams, which are particularly useful for wargamers and modellers.
The epic battle itself is broken into three phases (6 am to 12 am (sic), 12 am (sic) to 6 pm, 6 pm to 12 pm (sic)), in all comprising 114 of the 276 pages. Mikaberidze describes all of the key aspects of the battle, providing an overview of the action down to the detail of the units involved in specific combats. The text is interspersed, as is the entire book, with quotes from generals and soldiers (and civilians) which add greatly to the description and combine to provide a clear, detailed and impactful description.
The final part of the book ‘Aftermath’ deals mainly (and appropriately) with the direct aftermath of the battle, observations of the survivors, assessments of the outcome, the terrible casualty lists on both sides and the grisly charge of burying the dead. It is rounded off by seven pages on the remainder of the 1812 campaign and the legacy of Borodino.
The text throughout is clear and readable. Where appropriate and particularly early on in the book, Mikaberidze includes clarifying text in parentheses. Such text includes information such as who a particular person was, or the alternative names for a location or a battle, or the background to a statement in a quote. This provides clarity for the reader and I found it particularly helpful and useful.
The appendices comprise orders of battle (OBs) for the two armies and a glossary of terms. The OBs list the higher level commanders in each army, corps, division and brigade and the units in each of the latter. More complete versions of the OBs are freely available on the Napoleon Series website. These OBs there also include details of each unit and unit commander, plus numbers of battalions or squadrons. There are also estimated totals of troops for each corps, plus the staff for the armies, corps and divisions.
Example of one of the maps of the battle
The front pages of the book contain six excellent, detailed maps of Borodino showing the terrain, initial dispositions, positions at early afternoon and a detailed look at the attacks on the grand redoubt. There are two, less detailed maps that provide an overview of the early stages of the campaign and of the troop movements from Borodino to Moscow. Unfortunately, there is not a separate map to support the description of the Battle of Shevardino.
Twenty four pages of plates provide a selection of portraits of commanders, troops, reproductions of paintings and photos of sections of the battlefield. All are in black and white, but are reproduced clearly and vividly.
This is an invaluable source and a good read. We used this book as one of the main sources in designing our Borodino scenario and will use it as the main source for a Shevardino game.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

ANF Benefactors


The three amigos of the ANF consider ourselves fortunate to have ‘discovered’ one another. None of us alone would have been able to put together a game such as our Borodino 2012 scenario. Julian and I, who allowed ourselves to be ‘led astray’ with other periods and scales are playing catch-up to Mark’s consistent focus on 1/72nd and productive painting effort on, chiefly, Napoleonics. Complementary to our combined efforts are the contributions from those whom we call our “benefactors”; Ralph Fisher, P.T. Hine and Jason Soffe, three people who have helped us immensely in our ability to plan and to stage our games thus far—and into the future.
Benefactor 1: Ralph Fisher
Our first benefactor is my father, Ralph Fisher (RAF) who, during the mid- to late-90s, when in his seventies, decided to have a go at painting some of the numerous unpainted 1/72nd figures that we (chiefly I) had collected. He had previously left the painting to me, not having confidence in his own ability to do it. Well, not only did he find that he was able to paint them easily, he enjoyed the task and, in my opinion, did a fine job! He rapidly expanded the division-sized French and Anglo-Allied armies that I had managed to paint as a teenager to corps-sized armies of French, British, Spanish and Portuguese troops that he used in solo-games and occasional games that we had when able to catch up. Now, since his ‘retirement’ from the hobby, these figures have come to me and have formed the basis of much of the armies for our larger Peninsula battles, Tamames, Fuentes de Oñoro and Albuera and were also used in our games of battles from the 1807 campaign—especially the white-coated French regiments.
RAF's white-coated French and Loyals of Ferdinand VII at Tamames 
His French infantry at Eylau...

... and again here

Albuera featured figures from both RAF and P.T. Hine. The former's British and Loyal Lusitanian and the later's Portuguese are seen here
Benefactor 2: P.T. HIne and the NWS
Our second benefactor is someone we know only as P.T. Hine. This generous man donated his entire collection of 1/72nd French, British, Spanish and Portuguese figures to the Napoleonic Wargaming Society in Perth. They, not having anyone in the club who uses that scale, immediately thought of us and asked me if we’d like them; “absolutely”, I said. I expected to get a box with a heap of unpainted figures. Imagine my surprise when they handed to me two tool-boxes filled with beautifully painted Airfix 1/72nd figures (in need of a bit of sorting, re-gluing and minor touching-up) plus several old shirt boxes filled with unpainted Arifix 1/72nd Napoleonic figures. it was Christmas in July last year! These figures were also invaluable for Tamames, Fuentes de Oñoro and Albuera and to bolster our French army, especially for Eylau.
P.T. HIne's French chasseurs à cheval at Eylau

Oudinot's grenadiers (c/- P.T. HIne) at the battle of Nehrung
Benefactor 3: Jason Soffe
Our final benefactor is Jason Soffe, an Englishman abroad in France. Like me, Jason had tried unsuccessfully to sell figures through eBay. In my case it was 15 mm ACW, in his case over 5 000 unpainted Zvezda figures (Napoleonic, mediaeval and Great Northern War (GNW)). By an amazing bit of serendipity, I happened to see Jason’s post on the Hät Forum, asking if anyone was interested in buying the figures, the day that he put it there and in the few hours before it was taken down and he was black-banned—a bit heavy handed there HatBlogger! I contacted him, we exchanged a few emails, he quoted us his extremely reasonable price, I checked with Mark and Julian and we decided to purchase the lot (French Nap for me, Russian Nap & mediaeval for Mark and GNW for Julian)! We now have luxury amounts of Zvezda 1/72nd figures, some of the best cast plastic figures available, for our Napoleonic games and, once we let Julian off the ‘Napoleonic bicentennial leash’, games of GNW (and War of the Spanish Succession). Jason’s figures will feature strongly in our Borodino game, especially the Russian grenadiers and Cossacks and the French-allied artillery and infantry.
The eagerly awaited packages arrive from France

Inside one of the boxes, part of Jason Soffe's collection

French (in blue) and Saxons (in yellow) sorted (over 1 000 figures), plus a few GNW Russians in grey

Napoleonic Russians and mediaeval figures sorted (~1 500 there)

Enough GNW figures for any battle!
So gentleman, here’s a great big thank you to the three of you. Hopefully it gives you some pleasure to know that the figures that you collected and/or painted are ‘riding again’!

Saturday, 7 July 2012

A fine piece of historical writing from one of the 19th C’s greatest


Book Review: Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, by Theodore Ayrault Dodge
(Images courtesy of the publishers. Please do not reproduce without first seeking permission)
Frontline Books published this extended excerpt from volume III of Theodore Dodge's Napoleon: A History of the Art of War, under the title of “Napoleon's Invasion of Russia”.
Even the foreword of this book is full of interest. Written by George Nafziger, it outlines Dodge’s amazing career. Nafziger points out that Dodge is considered to be “the greatest American military historian of the 19th century”, and I am not surprised. Born in 1842, Dodge served in the Union and US Army from the Civil War until 1870, having lost his right leg at Gettysburg. He did not begin writing until he retired, but managed, in the remaining 38 years of his life, to produce an impressive list of historical works; The Campaign of Chancellorsville (1881), Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War (1883), Parrocius and Penelope (1885, Riders of Many Lands (1894), History of the Art of War (in twelve volumes): Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick the Great and Napoleon (1889). He certainly made the most of his 66 years!
The heart of this book is Dodge’s analysis of the actions and mistakes of the key ‘actors’, chiefly focussed on Napoleon, which is only natural given he is the topic of Dodge’s study. It took me a little while to get into this book, but I found Dodge’s critique, using evidence and analysis to explore the pros and cons, engaging, interesting and insightful.
The book begins with the background to the campaign and the failed ‘negotiations’, which Dodge notes were largely for show, since neither France, Russian nor England were prepared to compromise and Napoleon’s overtures of peace were rejected outright by Russia and England. He provides an overview of the political situation, strategic movements, supply and logistics. Dodge writes at length regarding Napoleon’s detailed preparations for the campaign, which were to prove to be so drastically insufficient.
An example of one of the line drawings

Each stage and phase of the campaign is described in detail, principally from the French perspective, supported by numerous quotes and Dodge’s insightful analysis and critique. As one would expect from a book that covers the entire campaign, the battles and actions are described in strategic rather than tactical terms, with only the main movements or actions mentioned. Detailed line drawings of generals and figures from specific military units, so often seen in books published in the late 19th and early 20th century, are dotted throughout the text. These are fine pieces in themselves, add a nice touch and break up the blocks of text nicely.

One of the numerous maps: not the most elegant,
but functional and  complement the text well
Pleasingly, the book features numerous, detailed maps. While these are not as clear as those we have come to expect in more recent publications, they complement the text well. All of the towns that Dodge mentions are either indicated on a map or clearly evident from the location of forces indicated on the maps. That said, it takes some effort to track the movements of the formations and this would have been greatly enhanced by the addition of arrows and the like on each map, rather than simply towns, roads and rivers. One can hardly criticise the book for this though and I am pleased that the publishers have reproduced it in the original format with original maps.
His description of the great battle of Borodino provides an excellent overview of the battle and its phases. Dodge provides a clear overview of Napoleon’s plan of battle, an aspect that seems to be all too often missing from other accounts that I have seen. The grand tactical view of the battle does not make it any the less compelling to read, with Dodge painting a fine word picture of the colossus struggle. “This massing of men and the tremendous array of guns opened the way for frightful losses” (p. 157). Contrary to many authors and commentators, Dodge’s conclusion about the battle, and particularly Napoleon’s decision not to use the Guard, is that it was justified at the time based on what Napoleon knew of the situation, but, with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge not known to Napoleon, was incorrect (pp. 166–171).
Dodge’s overall thesis is that Napoleon’s failure in 1812 was principally a result of his uncharacteristic indecision and, at crucial times, lack of action.
“All this may sound hypercritical; but we must try Napoleon by his own standard; our question is how far his own decrease in energy affected his power to wage war; and here he was quite behind his better days. It were absurd to explain blame his shortcomings; but his failure must be explained. There is no desire to make too much of small lapses; yet each tells its story. Something like mental weariness based on a physique no longer equal to the strain of his gigantic conceptions seems to have been at fault” (pp. 125–126).
It is a compelling argument, that has often been used in subsequent analyses. Everyone has their limit. We have a saying about people being promoted one level above their capability (which seems to happen all too frequently!). Perhaps Napoleon had reached the limit of his own capacity, which until then had appeared almost limitless. Running an army of nearly half a million men, with some ineffectual subordinates, under limited intelligence and harsh conditions, while at the same running a large empire, to which he was so central, nearly 3 000 km from home, would test anyone. The Russians were suffering similarly despite being within their home country, a point that has been brought to light in more recent studies of the campaign.
Dodge’s main criticism is of Napoleon’s decision to leave Smolensk. He argues and concludes, contrary to other analyses by Jomini and Clausewitz, that a cessation of the 1812 campaign at Smolensk would have been the best course of action by Napoleon (pp. 140-41), ready for a thrust on Moscow in 1813. This argument will continue as long as people write books about Napoleon and about the campaign. I suspect that the military man in Dodge is chief in this conclusion, which ignores the very real and important geo-political considerations that no doubt weighed heavily on Napoleon’s thinking.
Interestingly, Dodge suggests that, despite the poorer supply situation of the French-Allied army compared with the Russian, Napoleon should have followed up and attacked Kutuzov again after Borodino (pp. 183–184). This may well have been successful, given the strong performance of the Grande Armée at Borodino, which in no way reflected conditions of poor mounts and poor supply. Perhaps Napoleon feared another battle so soon after Borodino for fear of the losses that would be incurred on his already reduced army, or he was still shaken by the losses at Borodino (and in fact all of the battles of the campaign so far) and did not wish to engage in another slog, or he truly believed that Alexander would sue for peace once Moscow fell, or perhaps he had even lost faith in his own ability to beat the Russians in an open battle? Dodge concludes that the lack of a follow-up battle was due solely to the poor victualling of the Napoleon’s army.
It is often indicated that Napoleon was forced back to the invasion route during the retreat due to the inclusive result of Maloyaroslavets, but Dodge suggests that Napoleon’s movement south was a deception designed to initially disguise the retreat and that “he proposed to retire by way of Smolensk, for although the country was eaten out, yet the amount of supplies which had been accumulated on this road, and were still being wheeled up, would be the equivalent of all that they could get on any, except a route much further south” (p. 203).
The latter stages of the retreat, Krasnoi, Ney’s rearguard and the crossing of the Berezina are covered in detail and make for compelling, if harrowing, reading. There is little mention of the hardships and losses encountered by the Russian army during the retreat of Grand Armée, but the hesitation, poor information and bad decision-making of the Russian generals is stressed, as this, combined with the generally good performance of Napoleon and his generals when cornered—and some luck—assisted the Grande Armée to escape complete destruction, particularly at the Berezina.
The book concludes with a reproduction of Napoleon’s 29th bulletin in full. As Dodge notes, “whatever its prevarications, in view of the fact that those were not the days of special war correspondents and telegraphs, and compared with the reports of other unsuccessful campaigns by the commanding generals, it will hold its own”. It is salutary reading and is a fine way to conclude what is a fine book.

An epic tale brilliantly told


Book Review: Napoleon in Russia, by Alan Palmer
In this bicentennial of 1812 I have focussed much of my recent reading, surprise, surprise (!) on books about the Russian campaign. This has been particularly useful as we plan for our big Borodino bash in September and for the games based on other battles from 1812 that I hope we will do after that.
I began by re-reading this old favourite, which I first read about 20 years ago. I remembered it as an engaging read that challenge some of the mythology about the campaign. I particularly remember that Palmer discussed the burning of Moscow in some depth, trying to conclude just who was responsible.
My recollection of the book was supported from the first page. Palmer tells the story of the Russian campaign in lucid and elegant prose and the book is an enjoyable and interesting read. I was impressed by his critical, yet objective approach. There is little judgmental language or value-laden statements, merely a presentation of information and quotes from some of the key actors actors to inform the reader—and tell a ripping yarn at the same time.
Unlike many books about the Russian Campaign, this tome focusses more attention on the first half of the campaign (up to and including the capture of Moscow and the great fire). The first ten chapters cover this part of the epic story, with one devoted to Maloyaroslavets, three to the retreat and a concluding chapter (‘Laurels and Legends’).
Palmer presents a story of mistakes and lost opportunities, of uncharacteristic inaction and indecision by Napoleon, of a slow-moving attack and a wily, increasingly co-ordinated and determined retreat and defence.
The pursuit of the retreating Russian armies reads like an exciting mystery-adventure. The mistakes made by Napoleon and his subordinates, especially Jérôme, and the missed opportunities at Drissa, Vitebsk and Smolensk are clearly evident to us in hindsight, and from the comfort of an armchair! Palmer does not merely critique the French, illustrating that both armies lacked a clear plan of campaign, were racked by squabbles amongst senior commanders, lack of trust, a lack of clear information, slow rates of march and the hardships of the advance/retreat, particularly the impact of the rain and heat. A key turning point was the ‘need’ (and demand) for a ‘true’ Russian commander to unite the armies and build on the patriotism, which lead Alexander to reluctantly appoint Kutuzov as C-in-C.
The chapter on the Battle of Borodino describes the main phases of that terrible encounter. It includes an excellent, relatively simple map with the main features shown clearly. As with the rest of the book, Palmer’s vivid account highlights the intensity of the struggle. He uses the battle to develop his thesis that it was an example of a change in Napoleonic warfare and a move to artillery dominance that would be so evident in WWI. I struggled with this selective use of evidence to try to develop a general thesis (not to mention that, like the European military of the mid-19th C, he omits to note the significance of the ACW), but it did not detract from the value of the book and the narrative of the battle.
As is my all-too-common beef when reading and reviewing these books, the maps do not adequately support the text. While, as indicated by my praise of the one of the Battle of Borodino, those that are provided are clear and with reasonable detail (Campaign of 1812 (endpapers), Crossing the Niemen, Battle of Borodino, Burning of Moscow, Leaving Moscow and Crossing the Berezina), they are insufficient to follow the campaign in detail.
Palmer’s book features detailed accounts of aspects of the campaign that are too often glossed over by other authors. The meeting of the Russian commanders at Fili leading to the crucial decision to retreat beyond Moscow; the burning of Moscow (about which he presents compelling evidence that Rostopchin was the perpetrator); events during the French occupation and Napoleon's attempts to deal with Alexander; the battle of Maloyaroslavets (highlighting the performance of Dokhturov, Raevski and Eugène—which lead me to muse, “what if Eugène had been at Waterloo rather than Jerôme?!”) and dramatic battles around the crossing of the Berezina. There are numerous insights and interesting observations in these sections and chapters. For example, Napoleon’s decision to leave the army once safely in winter quarters, which he made early in the retreat, the losses in the retreat prior to snow fall, how half-starved French troops fought well at Viasma, but after battle part of Davout’s corps broke and ran to protection with Ney’s. These all add to the value of this book and, given that it was published in 1967, represent one of the first attempts—in popular writing in English—to dispel the myths that had been built around the campaign since 1812. 
So, my verdict has not changed much in 20 years. I still think it is an engaging read. I was particularly impressed that, like all good story-tellers, the author’s view-point is not important—in fact we are left unsure as to his point of view—the book is about the story, the available evidence and is an attempt to present a ‘factual’ account. Another one that is highly recommended.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Still No News Of La Pérouse


Reflections on the Napoleon Exhibition
What a sight for any Napoleon buff, to come to an Australian city and see banners of David's famous, romantic and stylised painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps!
Napoleon a envahi Melbourne
That's what greats a visitor to Melbourne at present and will do so until 7th October. The exhibition, Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, is showing at the National Gallery of Victoria and commenced on 2nd June.
Approaching the National Gallery of Victoria from Flinders Street

Entrance to the gallery
In the foyer: N in a setting perhaps more reminiscent of Josef S.?!
The exhibition focusses on art and design, and the changes in them from the Ancién Regime to the Revolution, then on to the Directory, the Consulate, the early Empire and finally the end of the Napoleonic period. It features paintings of people and events, articles of fine tableware, furniture and decoration, books, a combined twelve-hour and decimal clock, decorative swords and firearms that were presented to Napoleon and by Napoleon as gifts. Other impressive displays are a beautifully preserved dress worn by one of the lady guests at N's coronation, a series of six scenes showing aspects of the coronation and the presentation of the eagles at the Champ de Mars, a cabinet containing several crosses of the legion of honour from second to fourth class, and two cases of 'necessaires'—travelling cases with all of the needs for the well to do gent or lady.
The changing image of Napoleon himself runs through the exhibition.
Exploration, science and 'discovery' are also a major part of the exhibition, particularly the Australian connections associated with the voyages of La Pérouse, D’Entrecasteaux and Baudin, plus Josephine’s collection of antipodean plants at Malmaison. Prior to visiting the exhibition, I had no idea that Josephine was the first person to successfully breed black swan’s in captivity.
My favourite room of all, unsurprisingly for someone "like us", was the last, focussed as it is largely on Napoleon’s "art of war". The centre-piece is a large display case containing some of the uniformed mannequins as well as several items of uniforms of troops from Napoleon's army from the Musée de l'Emperi in Salon-de-Provence near Marseilles. Unfortunately the entire collection is not there (!), but a good selection is presented nonetheless. There is an officer of the 5e Hussars, a grenadier à pied de la garde, Davout's undress coat, Massena's marshal baton and case (which even has his name on it in gilt lettering), a helmet & cuirass of a post-1810 carabinier, a red lancer’s czapka, a Young Guard officer's shako, an aide de camp's decorative sword, an oriental sabre give to Ney by Napoleon and a highly decorated set of carbine, two pistols and associated powder flasks and ram-rods that were given to Massena by the First Consul in recognition of his victories in the first Italian campaign. The room also contains furniture from Fontainebleau, a dramatic painting by Charles Thevenin (see below), an early eagle and one of 1815, Empress Marie Louise’s imperial jewellery, one of N’s undress coats of a colonel of the chasseurs à cheval de la garde that he wore at St Helena, one of N’s hats, and his throne—with the N cypher removed following the restoration.
I was amazed and pleasantly surprised that I had not previously seen any of the five paintings of battle scenes that are dotted throughout the exhibition. The first of these is of the storming of the Bastille and arrest of Governor Launay (Prise de la Bastille et arrestation du gouverneur M. de Launay, le 14 juillet 1789) by an unknown artist. This is less dramatic and violent than other paintings of the event, but shows a range of groups including the ‘mob’, the Swiss Guards and white-coated infantry, as well as an impressive cannon.
The second was the Battle of the Pyramids by Francois-Louis-Joseph Watteau (La Bataille des Pyramides, 21 juillet 1798). While not the most realistic representation of the battle, it is an interesting piece in which the artist crammed as much as possible including the Great Pyramid, the Nile, a confused battle, and an interesting representation of Napoleon in profile on horseback.
There are two versions of the Battle of Marengo. Firstly, the combined effort of Joseph Boze, Robert Lefevre and Carle Vernet which the notes suggest was completed to win favour with the First Consul. It features Napoleon and Berthier larger than life, with a representation of the battle in the background. The second is a fabulous version by Jacques-François-Joseph Swebach (Swebach-Desfontaines). This does not appear to be a painting of the battle at all with its focus on the French commissariat and artillery in a peaceful setting in the foreground moving towards the distant battle. Again, this is unlike any representation in other works on this battle, but is a wonderful piece of art that shows some really interesting details of the rear lines—and none of the expected aspects of the battle!
My favourite in the entire exhibition is Charles Thevenin’s fabulous painting of the storming of Ratisbon. This work captures the chaos and confusion of battle and the seemingly impossible task of the frontal assault. Marshal Lannes is in the central location encouraging the grenadiers while being held back by his aides. In the background the main attack is making in-roads into the town. The description in the exhibition noted that Thevenin took advantage of the painting to shows as many uniforms as possible.
All in all, I thought it was a fabulous exhibition, albeit quite 'traditional'. It predominantly comprises static displays of the wonderful pieces described above, with a short description to the side. There are videos of the interior and grounds of Malmaison, Fontainebleau and Versailles and a wonderful audio extract of music from the Coronation, which was found in an attic in 1985! I’m not one for meaningless computer glitz, but I think it would have been great to have included some ‘tasteful’ CGI (representing the coronation perhaps?) or a video of a re-enactor loading and firing a musket or rifle. I would also have loved to have seen a 12 pounder as a centre-piece of the Art of War section, but I have to be a bit realistic, I guess!
The first time I went with a few members of my family who had all gathered in Melbourne. I got a multi-entry ticket for my father and me, who are the Napoleon ‘buffs’. This was great value as we had the time to make five visits over three days of a ‘long weekend’, which meant that we could have a good look at everything more than once and linger long at exhibits like Thevenin’s painting. It also meant that I was able to attend a special night-time session that happened to be on while I was still in Melbourne.
Well done and thanks to the organisers at the NGV, to the Foundation Napoleon and the various supporting individuals and companies for bringing the exhibition to Australia. The staff and volunteers at the NGV do a fabulous job of making visitors feel welcome and they seem genuinely excited about the exhibition!
Discussing tactics with the Great Man


The modern technology did not seem to impress him! 


Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Wargaming Borodino 2012 (4)


We have now 95% completed our terrain for Borodino and are pleased with the result.



Cutting and painting the hills



Casualties of wargaming


The last five percent to complete includes:
  • one last check of any areas for re-flocking,
  • re-doing a couple of hills for which we stuffed up the scale—the Utitsa Mound is currently a grassy knoll!,
  • add the Borodino Church (we’ll try a scratch built one and will purchase one if we don’t get it to our liking), and
  • place the woods.
We will get together sometime over the next couple of weeks to finish this.
Terence Wise's article about his refight of Borodino at 1:100 in Battle Magazine circa 1978

Monday, 2 July 2012

Easily the best single-volume treatment of the subject in print


Book Review: Napoleonic Artillery by Anthony L. Dawson, Paul L. Dawson and Stephen Summerfield
This book is like an encyclopaedia of artillery in the Napoleonic wars. It is all there. The book begins with an introduction to Napoleonic ordnance, and follows with chapters on Austrian, Prussian and Russian ordnance, French and French-allied ordnance, British and Hanoverian ordnance, foreign and captured ordnance, light and mountain ordnance, siege, coastal and garrison ordnance, moving the guns, colours of artillery pieces, effectiveness, characteristics and supply of ammunition, artillery tactics and artillery organisation.
It is not a book that one is likely to read from cover to cover, rather "dipping" into it to check a particular aspect, to read a section or chapter of interest, or to answer a question. (I'll confess here that I have not yet read all of the book). That said the text is eminently readable.
Do you have a question regarding the colours of the artillery guns and limbers of various nations, the range of cannon of different calibre, or regarding artillery tactics? The answer is here. Perhaps you want to know when the British adopted the block-trail carriage? You guessed it. Better still, the information does not consist merely of a statement, but with dates, references and supporting evidence.
The text is accompanied by clear and detailed diagrams of artillery carriages, barrels, limbers and equipment, photos from museums and re-enactors, paintings and line drawings, plus numerous tables.
This is a feast of wonderful information for the wargamer or general enthusiast. Turn to any page and you’ll find interesting information, well presented and clearly written. Highly recommended.
(There are known errors in the text which are chiefly typos and errors in the headings of plates. Some of these are fairly significant, but have been published by the authors on the Napoleon Series website: http://www.napoleon-series.org/reviews/military/c_NapArtyCorrections.html).